Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

The Straight Path to Healing: Using Motivational Interviewing to Address Spiritual Bypass

Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

The Straight Path to Healing: Using Motivational Interviewing to Address Spiritual Bypass

Article excerpt

Spirituality has been defined in countless ways in literature from various fields and disciplines. One of the simplest definitions of spirituality is one's relationship with self, others, and the universe (C. Whitfield, 1987). Spirituality, whether or not it occurs in the context of organized religion, is a significant aspect of the human experience for many people worldwide (Seaward, 2009). Specifically, Gallup polls (e.g., Gallup, 2011) have revealed that religion plays a "very important" role in the lives of more than half of Americans, and countless others have formed a personal set of spiritual beliefs, practices, and experiences outside the context of organized religion. Because of the salience of spirituality, it is critical that counselors are able to work effectively in the spiritual dimension with clients during the counseling process (Cashwell & Young, 2011). Ideally, increased competency will promote accurate client conceptualization, clinical diagnoses, and intervention strategies. Whereas counselors often use a client's spiritual beliefs and practices as an approach to enhance mental health, often the shadow side of spirituality is overlooked (Welwood, 2000). That is, the potential for one's spiritual life to perpetuate mental and emotional turmoil may be as predominant as its potential to engender life benefits (Lesser, 1999; Pargament, 2007).

Spiritual bypass is a phenomenon that commonly arises when working with clients regarding the spiritual dimension. Spiritual bypass is defined as the use of one's spirituality, spiritual beliefs, spiritual practices, and spiritual life to avoid experiencing the emotional pain of working through psychological issues (Welwood, 2000). This trap entails actively seeking spiritual highs as a means to avoid processing underlying psychological pain (B. H. Whitfield, 1995).

One way to address the issue of spiritual bypass in counseling is to use the techniques, interventions, and processes of motivational interviewing (MI). MI is a counseling framework used to encourage positive behavior change in clients (Miller, 1983). It has been established as an evidenced-based treatment for persons with substance abuse problems (Hettema, Steele, & Miller, 2005); however, researchers are increasingly finding support for the use of MI with psychological disorders, treatment adherence (Arkowitz, Westra, Miller, & Rollnick, 2008), and the management of healthy lifestyle behaviors in patients with chronic medical problems, such as diabetes (Rollnick, Miller, & Butler, 2008).

MI provides a foundation for all counselors to use with clients seeking to deepen their spiritual life (Martin & Booth, 1999) and, as we propose in this article, in addressing spiritual bypass. The purpose of this article, then, is to describe how an MI approach can be used to help clients gently address the avoidant coping strategy of spiritual bypass and work to resolve underlying psychological and emotional concerns. First, a description of spiritual bypass is presented, and then the tenets of MI are described, followed by a case vignette.

* Spiritual Bypass

Charles Whitfield, a medical doctor and psychotherapist specializing in trauma, recovery, and codependence, coined the term spiritual bypass. This phrase refers to a condition in which an individual attempts to avoid, or bypass, necessary work on the psychological plane by jumping directly to the spiritual plane (C. Whitfield, 2003). The condition of spiritual bypass also has been referred to as "premature transcendence" and "high level denial" (Harris, 1994; B. H. Whitfield, 1995). Despite variations in labels, the premise of the condition remains the same: bypassing work at psychological levels by focusing on the spiritual level only (Harris, 1994). Although pain from past trauma, unfinished business, and psychological distress may exist, clients in spiritual bypass avoid these issues by focusing on the spiritual rather than psychological aspects of themselves (Cashwell, Bentley, & Yarborough, 2007). …

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